Technology, History, and Place

Category: Indian tech (Page 2 of 2)


The 1970s are gone forever

Engine nacelle of an IndiGo A320, in flight over Assam.

Engine nacelle of an IndiGo A320, in flight over Assam.

Air travel is an up-and-coming transportation sector in twenty-first century India. Although the majority of the Indian population has never flown on a plane before (trains and buses are still the movers of the masses), the growth of airlines has provided greatly expanded options for the Indian jet-set. In recent years, legacy carriers such as Indian Airlines have faced competition from newer companies such as Jet Airways and SpiceJet. The most successful of the new carriers is IndiGo, a Gurgaon-based regional airline with connections to twenty-eight Indian cities and five international destinations. Last year, IndiGo became the largest airline in India by market share, only six years after starting operations.1

I first got to fly on IndiGo last summer, when I took its daily flight from Jaipur to Guwahati and back (with a stopover in Kolkata). On the flight, my attention was inevitably drawn toward the flight attendants, who were all pretty young women wearing fashionable uniforms. And it’s wasn’t a fluke that they were all attractive. The in-flight magazine carried a full-page recruiting ad with some very specific requirements. “We are looking for bright, ambitious young girls to join our award-winning cabin crew,” the ad copy began. Requirements included:

  • Age: 18-27 years
  • Minimum height: 155 cm, “with weight in proportion to height”
  • “Well-groomed with a clear complexion”

Applicants were requested to send their resumes, along with full-length and passport photos (mugshots) to crew@indigo.in.2

Wow, this is remarkable, I thought. I’ve traveled back in time, and it’s the 1970s again.

It was in the 1970s in the United States that female flight attendants were the most blatantly exploited for their femininity and sex appeal. Although airline polices had long set requirements for age, weight, and marital status (no married women need apply), several factors in the 1970s—including increased industry competition, loosening sexual attitudes, and general bad taste—led to super-sexy flight attendant uniforms and shockingly explicit airline advertisements. This was especially the case with second-tier airlines that were competing with established carriers. The most infamous airline ad from the period, issued by National Airlines, featured a pretty young flight attendant, with the caption: “Hi, I’m Cheryl – Fly Me.”3

I should add that it was the 1970s that also saw a backlash against objectification by the flight attendants themselves. They ultimately succeeded in their demands that airlines drop discriminatory hiring practices, phase out the revealing uniforms, and stop using the term “stewardess” in favor of the gender-neutral “flight attendant.”4

Meanwhile, in India in 2012, I soon realized that the present wasn’t as similar to the American 1970s as I had thought. IndiGo was not hiring women only for their femininity; the airline was also hiring them for their skills. I realized this when my plane stopped over in Kolkata on the return trip to Jaipur. As the plane was sitting on the tarmac, the cockpit crew swapped out. One of the new pilots was a woman.

  1. “IndiGo dethrones Jet Airways as India’s No. 1 airline,” Hindustan Times, August 17, 2012, http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/SectorsAviation/IndiGo-dethrones-Jet-Airways-as-India-s-No-1-airline/Article1-915217.aspx. []
  2. IndiGo has a somewhat different recruiting ad on its website here. []
  3. Kathleen M. Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 176-84, 189-90. []
  4. Ibid., 8. []

India’s launch into space activity

On the evening of November 21, 1963, a two-stage Nike-Apache rocket shot skyward from Thumba, a spot on the Malabar Coast of southern India. The rocket carried a sodium-vapor experiment that produced a cloud as the rocket ascended. The zigzag shape of the cloud indicated the prevailing winds at different altitudes. Observers at stations as far as 250 km (155 mi) away reported spotting the cloud with the naked eye.1

It was the first launch of a research rocket in India—a nation that would go on to develop its own indigenous satellite launchers. But in 1963, India still had the better part of two decades to go before its first successful satellite launch with the SLV-3 booster. India’s first research rocket launch was a cooperative effort with the United States and France. The American space agency NASA provided the Nike-Apache rocket, which was based on the first stage of a retired surface-to-air missile. France’s CNES provided the sodium-vapor experiment. As Homi Bhabha, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, remarked after the launch, “The NASA has launched us into space activity. We hope this is the beginning of increasing and continuing cooperation between India and the US.”2

As part of the sounding rocket program, NASA brought a small team of Indian scientists and engineers to the United States for training at the agency’s Langley, Goddard, and Wallops Island facilities. One of the men on this team was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who would gain distinction from his later work on Indian space launchers and missiles, then cap off his career with a term as President of India. At NASA, the team received basic technical training for assembling imported rockets, launching, tracking, and data acquisition. Their hosts at NASA did not give them any information about building their own rockets. The Nike-Apache launch in India is a case of the transfer of a technological artifact (in this case, a rocket), but not the knowledge of how it was made. It would ultimately be the French who passed knowledge about rocket construction on to the Indian program, when they provided for the license manufacture of their Centaure rocket in India.3

The launch of a NASA rocket was an example of especially close Indo-American technical cooperation in the early independence period. That same month, the US Air Force offered training to the Indian Air Force on portable radar sets that the American government had donated to India. The Nike-Apache and its launching equipment likely came to India on one of the same cargo planes that brought supplies for Exercise Shiksha, as the joint air exercise was called. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, the United States would continue to offer technical aid to India on programs as diverse as agriculture, public health, and power generation. But except for the period around Exercise Shiksha, the United States hoped to avoid alienating its ally Pakistan by keeping its distance from any Indian programs with a clear military application. Despite Dr. Bhabha’s hopes for increasing Indo-American cooperation, rocketry had an especially obvious military application. Thus it would be the French, rather than the Americans, who would pass knowledge of rocket construction on to India.

  1. Gopal Raj, Reach for the Stars: The Evolution of India’s Rocket Programme (New Delhi: Viking, 2000), 16-17. []
  2. “India fires first rocket for space research,” Hindustan Times, November 22, 1963. []
  3. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, with Arun Tiwari, Wings of Fire: An Autobiography (Hyderabad: Universities Press, 1999), 37-9; Raj, Reach for the Stars, 32. Note that the license-production of French rockets was only a part of Indian rocket development. There was also a parallel program of Indian-designed sounding rockets, known as Rohini. Knowledge from Rohini as well as Centaure was applied in the SLV-3 program. []

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